When a couple chooses to live together they are entering a relationship that can have legal consequences if they choose to separate in the future. Under Alberta law, a couple is considered to be in a common law relationship if they have lived together for three years or more, have a child or have adopted a child together, or have signed a cohabitation agreement.
Although common law relationships do not fall under the same laws a traditional marriages, they are legally binding relationships. Alberta is one of the few provinces in which common law partners do not have an automatic right to claim against their partner’s assets if the relationship ends. This means that if a common law couple live in a house owned by one partner, that partner alone is entitled to the property, and the other partner has no rights to it.
However, the Alberta courts have created safeguards in case one party is unjustly enriched at the expense of the other partner. For example, if a couple live in a house owned by one partner and the other partner helps to renovate the house but is not on the title, the courts will rule that the non-owning partner has some rights to the house.
Common law partners often do not define the legal effects of their relationships and if they choose to separate they may become entangled in similar legal proceedings to a divorce. For this reason it is important to be aware of the legal effects of your common law relationship.
In order to avoid legal disputes if you choose to separate, common law partners can sign a cohabitation agreement that outlines the legal consequences of your relationship.
A cohabitation agreement has similar clauses to a pre-nuptual agreement, but is designed for common law couples. The agreement usually clarifies who owns which property and what rights the partners have over the property. Income, or a gain in the value of assets, often will belong to the partner who earns the income or owns the asset. If the couple wishes to own assets together, then the agreement will outline the portions that the partners own.
The agreement should be signed before separate lawyers to ensure that both parties clearly understand its legal effect.
Cohabitation agreements are persuasive in Court when claiming spousal support and are likely to be upheld regarding a claim against assets. They will have no effect however regarding a claim for child support since the Courts will allow parties to freely enter into agreements but have an overriding duty to ensure that child receive adequate support.
Along with preparing a cohabitation agreement you should ensure that you have a valid Will. If one partner dies, the other partner can also claim Canada Pension Death benefits, or support from a deceased partners estate. If you or your partner pass away a valid Will can prevent legal family disputes. Planning your affairs and preparing the proper documentation can prevent misunderstandings, grief and high legal fees.